Justice in Motion — Courtroom decorum redux

I sporadically observe local court dockets as part of my job. It is remarkable how often litigants undermine their cases by their courtroom decorum. I have written on this topic before, but clearly, every couple of years this topic is worth revisiting. I have recently been attending juvenile court pretty regularly; and frankly, the adults are often worse than the youth. Adults are texting on their phones; showing up in sweats looking like they just rolled out of bed, chewing gum, etc.

de·co·rum [dih-kawr-uhm, -kohr-] noun

1. Dignified propriety of behavior, speech, dress, etc.

2. The quality or state of being decorous; orderliness; regularity.

3. Usually, decorums. An observance or requirement of polite society.

So here, again, is my court etiquette 4-1-1:

Courtrooms can be confusing and scary. You may be stressed, angry or emotional—perhaps not thinking clearly or rationally. To avoid making matters worse, you should prepare what you want to accomplish. A simple suggestion: write it down before court and take notes during. Cases can fall apart when an individual gets in front of a judge and either goes blank or rambles on with no real point.

Speaking from experience, attorneys are not immune to these pitfalls; we are all human. My normal rate of speech is fast. When I am nervous, increase it tenfold. Just ask court reporters how often they ask people to slow down.

If there is one thing everyone should know about going to court—your credibility means everything. So, be mindful. On a bad day, when a judge’s patience is wearing thin, a serious misstep can cost you your case.

Having been in courtrooms in rural and urban communities, west and east coast, it is remarkable how many people think acceptable courtroom behavior is something akin to what they see on television. Going to court should be taken seriously.

It’s not the Jerry Springer Show, Judge Judy or CourtTV!

How you behave and appear may directly influence others’ evaluations of your credibility. These superficialities are often subjective and should not matter, but often they do. Even if you disagree with the process or the court, if you fail to be respectful or mindful of these issues, you risk compromising your case. Do not let emotions or lack of preparation allow you to lose sight of your goals.

Here are suggestions for proper court decorum (in no particular order) that I often share with clients or during outreach:

• Do not chew gum.

• No electronic gadgets to pass the time.

• Turn off cellphones; or better yet, leave it in the car.

• Consider covering tattoos (especially if explicit language or images) and removing unusual piercings.

• Dress appropriately: no sweats, no flipflops,

• No sunglasses, clean/neat clothes; women should avoid wearing low cut shirts, short skirts/shorts or showing their midriff; men should tuck in their shirt and avoid low-hanging pants.

• Unless worn for religious purposes, remove any head gear, hats, etc.

• Use “Your Honor,” “Sir,” or “Ma’am” when addressing the court.

• Use “Mr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Ms.” when referencing the opposing party or attorney, even if they are someone you know.

• When in front of the judge, do not speak to the opposing party or attorney (you are there to address the court, not the other side).

• Do not interrupt the judge or the opposing party or attorney.

• Try saying “Please,” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” etc. It is remarkable how much mileage one can get from polite manners.

• Avoid inappropriate body language and facial expressions, e.g., crossed arms, rolling your eyes, frowning, etc.

• Avoid profanity.

• Be quiet during other cases (courtrooms often have acoustic “sweet spots”—you would be surprised what a judge can hear across a courtroom).

• If children do not need to be present; try to find childcare.

• Be quiet in the hallway.

• And finally, remain calm.

I am sometimes conflicted making some of these suggestions. On the one hand, you have a right to express yourself. On the other, you have to pick your battles. In the end, the choice is yours.

To find out if you are eligible for Northwest Justice Project services:

For cases including youth (Individualized Education Program and school discipline issues), debt collection cases and tenant evictions, please call for a local intake appointment at (360) 533-2282 or toll free (866) 402-5293. No walk-ins, please.

For all other legal issues, please call our toll-free intake and referral hotline commonly known as “CLEAR” (Coordinated Legal Education Advice and Referral) at 1-888-201-1014, Mondays through Fridays 9:10 a.m. to 12:25 p.m. If you are a senior, 60 and over, please call 1-888-387-7111; you may be eligible regardless of income. Language interpreters are available. You can also complete an application for services at nwjustice.org/get-legal-help. Be sure to also check out our law library at: www.washingtonlawhelp.org.


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